Every now and then, I sit back and ask myself what's next for me with regards to flying. Would I, for example, like to move up to a more capable airplane, perhaps one offering more power or additional seats? 'Tis certain that if that were the case, I'd also want an upgrade in avionics to allow for more predictable travel on longer trips. Which is to say, I'd want IFR capability. And a two-axis autopilot. And I'd want to stay at least in the neighborhood of the 150 knots I get from Papa. It gets thorny quickly when thinking along these lines because it doesn't take very long at all to populate a minimum requirement list that equates to a six-figure cost.
Or would I prefer to move down into a simpler plane, perhaps one of the spiffy new LSA types popping up on the market from such trusted sources as Cessna and Cirrus? Well, those are brand new airplanes and as such also quickly exceed the six-figure plateau. And the result should I take this path? A small two-seat airplane that can't fly at night or in IMC conditions and can only (by law!) cruise at speeds less than 120.1 knots. There are also benefits, of course, but they are of the nature that they won't be beneficial to me until I begin to get concerned about passing the FAA Class 3 physical.
There's nothing magical about a six-figure price tag; with the proper financing I could swing it. But there's the rub: debt sucks. Debt on things like, oh, houses makes sense. Debt on heavily depreciating things like cars? Not so much. Debt on a pure luxury item like an airplane? Really, out of the question. There's also the issue of ongoing costs. Insurance would surely be higher as the hull value climbed. In the case of a store-bought plane, maintenance costs would also become more burdensome. These are hard increases to live with in the absence of some serious increase in needed capability.
So, what is it I need? As I look out the window this morning, I see moderately low clouds and the promise of afternoon haze. Let's say that I wanted to fly somewhere today, or in a more typical scenario, let's say that I flew somewhere yesterday and spent the night. I'm looking at maybe 1,000' ceiling and three miles visibility today and I'm not going to be able to fly home. This is light IFR and is exactly the kind of weather I'd like to be able to deal with when it arises. I don't need the capability to make an ILS approach to 1 mile and 200' minimums; I'd be satisfied with being able to make approaches to the typical GPS or non-precision minimums of 800 and 1.
With that in mind, I always circle back to the question of whether I need a new airplane to do that. The answer is no. With the right avionics, Papa could do that. Note that this is by no means a revelation - I've noodled my way down this path many times. The problem, as you can imagine, comes down to cost and effort. I haven't quite figured out what it would cost, but I know it would be a lot of effort. I figure I'd need at least:
- a glass panel six-pack replacement such as the Blue Mountain Sport EFIS ($6,995!!) or something from Dynon
- an ICOM A-210 ($1,500) to replace the quirky A-200 I have now
- a two-axis autopilot ($2,500 - $3,000)
- a better pitot tube (I could buy this today)
This is the Blue Mountain EFIS:
It's amazing technology and at $7,000 is a relative bargain. The problem there, though, is the "relative" qualifier. Relative to, say, a Garmin 600 or a full-blown Chelton/Dynon/Grand Rapids set up, it's dirt cheap. Relative to home enhancements, food, clothing, a vacation, or any number of non-aviation related items, it's pretty expensive. It would provide an increase in the market value of the plane should I ever decide to sell it, but those boosts are never anywhere near the cost of the enhancements. You just can't bank on intangibles like that. There might be something to be said for increased safety-of-flight, but I have something similar to that already: I don't fly in marginal weather. Can't get a whole lot safer than that!
I'm guessing at a $10,000 - $13,000 price tag just for the hardware. The installation would take either months for me to do, or a couple of thousand dollars more to pay someone to do it for me. And get ready for the recurring costs! Database updates, XM NEXRAD subscription, and the IFR pitot-static/transponder check every two years. Well, I already have to do the transponder check, so I guess I'm already paying for at least that part of the recurring stuff. Still, do I need another $100/month in recurring costs?
I used to think that it would be more cost effective to sell Papa and just buy a plane that already has all that stuff, but now I'm not so sure. First, I'm no longer confident that the depressed market would value Papa as highly as I do, although the replacement plane might be had at a bargain rate as well. The second (and larger) problem is that I don't think it would be easy to find a plane that has the ramp presence of Papa. And, well, we've developed a bit of a sentimental bonding too.
For anyone that's read this far, I'm sorry to say that there's no conclusion to be had here. This has been an on-going debate for a couple of years now, and it will continue as such. But here's the cool thing: Oshkosh is less than a month away, and there is no better data-gathering/daydreaming-emporium on the face of this planet than Oshkosh.